Friday, January 30, 2015

Song of the Sea: An enchanted fable

Song of the Sea (2014) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated PG, for mild peril and fleeting Irish profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.30.15

There’s an irritating tendency to believe that quality animated films come only from the United States, an arrogant assumption that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has attempted to address — with varying success — since granting such features their own Oscar category in 2001.

Ben, left, unfairly blames his younger sister Saoirse for the absence of their mother, who
apparently died in childbirth. But their father, Conor, knows the actual truth ... and it's a
secret that he hopes to preserve, lest it also affect his little girl.
Although domestic efforts still tend to win the award — and that’s also annoying — the competition nonetheless has granted welcome exposure to foreign talents such as Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville), Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud (Persepolis) and Hayao Miyazaki (nominated three times, and a winner for Spirited Away).

But a sidebar problem also has emerged: It can be hard to see some of the nominees, particularly prior to the Academy Awards broadcast. As I’ve noted previously, the Academy’s animation branch can be congratulated for recognizing talent outside the United States, but that cultural generosity hasn’t been embraced by American movie distributors ... or, for that matter, by American movie viewers.

In 2011, A Cat in Paris and Chico and Rita had almost no distribution throughout the United States. One of last year’s nominees, Ernest & Celestine, never was released in our local area, having been granted only limited national release and exposure at some film festivals. And although nothing could have stopped the Frozen juggernaut — which inevitably included the Oscar in this category — Ernest & Celestine is a far better film on every level.

Which brings us to this year, and similar frustrations. Studio Ghibli’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya played a few film festivals in October and had very limited release in the rest of the country ... but only in a compromised version that inserted a new American voice cast (another practice that I deem horrifying). Good luck finding it.

Irish director Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea played for two qualifying weeks in late December, in New York, and has remained off the radar since then ... until now. The film is making spotty appearances nationwide, and, starting today, we’ve been granted one screen at an outlying Roseville multiplex.

Trust me: It’ll be worth the drive.

And don’t wait, because I doubt it’ll stay there very long.

Moore may be remembered for having helmed the delightful Secret of the Kells back in 2009, which also earned an Oscar nod. He and his crew began work on Song of the Sea that same year, and the lengthy production time will be understood the moment you experience the luxurious, absolutely gorgeous hand-drawn art that fills every frame.

Black Sea: No treasure here

Black Sea (2014) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity and violence

By Derrick Bang

Something’s rotten in the state of cinema...

Back in the day of classic Hollywood “disaster movies” — a cycle that began with 1970’s Airport — the survival rate was roughly an audience-acceptable 50 percent. This issue revolved around key characters; in 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure, we lost Gene Hackman, Shelley Winters, Roddy McDowall, Leslie Nielsen and Stella Stevens, while Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Pamela Sue Martin, Jack Albertson, Carol Lynley and Eric Shea made it to daylight.

Frustrated by the mutual hostility that divides his Russian and British crew members,
Robinson (Jude Law, center) angrily orders the men to get along ... while promising that
this clandestine submarine mission will make them all very, very rich.
In 1974’s The Towering Inferno, Robert Wagner, Jennifer Jones, Robert Vaughn, Richard Chamberlain and Susan Flannery got toasted, while the survivors included William Holden, Faye Dunaway and Fred Astaire. (Paul Newman and Steve McQueen weren’t in the building.) And so it went, with Earthquake, the various Airport sequels and others.

More to the point, many of those who perish do so heroically or tragically, in some cases while saving others. We feel for them. Yes, all such films have their villains, but no more than one or two ... and they always get their just desserts.

Things have changed.

These days, disaster/survival films have become slaughter films: mainstream cousins of the countless “dead teen” horror flicks that erupted in the wake of 1980’s Friday the 13th. Most of the characters are nameless, faceless and two-dimensional, just like all those doomed teens: stick figures present solely to be killed, under unpleasant and often ludicrous circumstances. Nobility and self-sacrifice are absent, replaced instead by venal and brutish behavior.

If we’re lucky, one person might survive, as in 2011’s odious Sanctum, which raised the bar for acceptable mainstream butchery. Alternatively, nobody survives, as with 2012’s The Grey. Heroic effort proves futile.

Which, in my mind, makes such films rather pointless.

And deplorably mean-spirited.

I’d hate to think this attitude shift reflects our national psyche; if it does, we’re in a lot of trouble.

All of which brings us to Black Sea, ostensibly an action thriller from director Kevin Macdonald, best known for absorbing dramas such as The Last King of Scotland and State of Play. I say “ostensibly” because you shouldn’t believe the promotional slant; this is actually a disaster movie. Which is to say, in the current vogue, a slaughter-fest.

And an insufferably dumb one, at that.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Inherent Vice: A very bad trip

Inherent Vice (2014) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity, graphic nudity, sexual content, constant drug use and occasional violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.23.15

This deranged flick is best imagined as an unholy love child spawned by Chinatown and every Sam Spade novel Dashiell Hammett never wrote.

Glimpsed through a peyote haze.

Private detective Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, left) and maritime lawyer Sauncho
Smilax (Benicio Del Toro) watch from an oceanside restaurant as a suspicious
schooner — recently re-christened the Golden Fang — makes its way into port,
its purpose certain to be illicit.
Thomas Pynchon is challenging under the best of circumstances, which also can be said of director/scripter Paul Thomas Anderson, whose oeuvre features aggressively peculiar films such as Magnolia, There Will Be Blood and The Master. Put these two eclectic minds together, and the results are far from the best of circumstances.

At its better moments, Anderson’s take on Pynchon’s Inherent Vice is a funny pastiche of 1940s film noir atmosphere and attitude, filtered through the drug-hazed cheesecloth of 1970s hippiefied Los Angeles. The characters are manic, the dialog heightened far beyond stratospheric visibility, and the unfolding plot a crazy-quilt conspiracy that gets more flamboyantly, hilariously preposterous by the minute.

You can’t help admiring the self-indulgent audacity ... except, well, too much rapidly becomes way too much. The stoner somnambulance through which every character delivers his lines becomes trés tedious, and a tedious film wears out its welcome long before the clock winds down on its 148-minute running time.

Anderson, it should be noted, never makes short films. He should consider doing so.

Pynchon’s 2009 novel exists in the same seemingly random, psychedelic fever that was typical of Richard Brautigan’s work in the 1960s and ’70s. If so-called “free jazz” is music without melody, then Brautigan’s prose was words without context: sentences strung together solely to befuddle and amuse. Brautigan was adored by the counter-counter set, who no doubt found his books far more compelling when read aloud under the influence of LSD.

Inherent Vice is similarly haphazard, with bizarre characters wandering into our protagonist’s landscape like the pink elephants that haunt somebody enduring delirium tremens. We must consider Pynchon’s history: As we’re reminded in a delightful December analysis in the Los Angeles Times, Pynchon’s third novel, 1973’s Gravity’s Rainbow, won the National Book Award ... “and caused the Pulitzer Committee to cancel that year’s fiction prize after it found the book ‘unreadable’ and ‘obscene.’ ”

Inherent Vice is somewhat more coherent, but that’s not saying much. Indeed, it could be argued that the entire story is a marijuana-induced nightmare experienced by main character Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix): In other words, nothing that we see is real. The film dares us to imagine this from the very first scene, as Doc views the unexpected arrival of former girlfriend Shasta Fay (Katherine Wilson) with surprise, and she murmurs, almost to herself, “Thinks he’s hallucinating.”

That notion likely will make the film work better for some viewers, but it’s too easy an explanation. More complicated is the possibility that some of what we see is real ... and some isn’t.

I’ve serious doubts, for example, about the actual existence of Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), who both narrates this saga — providing indispensable linking commentary that helps us over the rough spots — and serves as Doc’s sounding board. Eventually, it seems odd that nobody else seems to interact with Sortilège, suggesting that she’s the personification of Doc arguing with himself.


Mortdecai: Fool's gold

Mortdecai (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, and needless, for fleeting profanity and mild blue humor

By Derrick Bang

I’ve a soft spot for light-hearted caper flicks, and a corresponding tendency to treat them gently, during post-mortem analysis.

It’s therefore with great regret that I pronounce Mortdecai a crushing disappointment.

Intending to rig the art auction on which their fortunes now depend, Mortdecai (Johnny Depp)
and his wife, Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) make a public appearance to allay suspicion.
But will the hapless Mortdecai be able to orchestrate his end of this complex swindle?
Although promoted as a caper saga, that’s not quite accurate; the closest our title character gets to a heist is climbing a ladder to enter a second-story window. And while the story does revolve around a rumored Goya masterpiece enhanced by the possibility that its canvas has been defaced with a code that might lead to long-lost Nazi gold, Eric Aronson’s script dwells too heavily on Mortdecai himself.

Preening, foppish, self-centered Charlie Mortdecai, played in full-blown, upper-class-twit mode by Johnny Depp.

Time was, a new Johnny Depp project was cause for celebration; he brought such panache to most everything he did a decade or so ago, in projects as diverse as Chocolat, From Hell, Finding Neverland and even the first Pirates of the Caribbean. More recently, though, his work has tended toward self-indulgent laziness, with Depp apparently coasting on the merits of his own career, and bringing little to each new party.

These days, in the wake of The Rum Diary, Dark Shadows and most particularly The Lone Ranger, we’re more inclined to roll our eyes at the prospect of a new Depp feature ... much the way his Mortdecai sighs theatrically and rolls his eyes at just about everything here.

That’s the major problem with director David Koepp’s approach; he and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister focus far too much on Depp. Granted, one expects a movie’s star to receive the lion’s share of close-ups, but Depp’s slow, aristocratically condescending line readings — although initially droll — become tiresome, and eventually bring the otherwise fast-paced film to a grinding halt. Every. Time. He. Speaks.

Koepp is trying for a manic, effervescent blend of P.G. Wodehouse and The Pink Panther: a smart choice, since this film is inspired by the charismatic, forever cash-strapped, art-dealer anti-hero in a series of three comic novels by the late British author Kyril Bonfiglioli, and published back in the 1970s. His Mortdecai clearly is based on Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, and the resemblance is cemented further by Mortdecai’s far more capable manservant Jock Strapp, an equally obvious nod to Bertie’s Jeeves.

Bonfiglioli’s Mortdecai books are beloved by no less than Stephen Fry, who will be remembered as the pluperfect Jeeves in the 1990 TV series he did with frequent colleague Hugh Laurie. And if this film’s press notes are to be believed, Depp himself is another Bonfiglioli fan. So far, so good.

Friday, January 16, 2015

American Sniper: Well-focused drama

American Sniper (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for strong and disturbing war violence, and frequent profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.16.15

What price a man’s soul?

Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is the thoughtful study of Texas-born good ol’ boy Chris Kyle, who, sparked by a flash of patriotism, impulsively abandoned an amiably deadbeat lifestyle to train as a Navy SEAL. And not just any SEAL, as it turned out, but a deadly accurate sharpshooter eventually credited with 160 confirmed kills (out of 255 probables) during his service in the Iraqi war.

With Goat-Winston (Kyle Gallner, background) keeping an eye on the surrounding
buildings, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) peers through the scope of his sniper rifle and
wonders what to do about the young woman and little boy who have just emerged from
a street-level doorway. Are they harmless ... or should they be taken out?
Eastwood — 84 years young, and still going strong — hasn’t helmed many straight biographies during his lengthy career; we can point to Bird and J. Edgar, along with White Hunter, Black Heart, the latter a thinly veiled account of director John Huston’s off-camera activities while making The African Queen.

Despite working with different scripters, each of these films focused on the emotional and spiritual toll exacted by a man’s career and lifestyle. It could be argued that Eastwood’s magnum opus, in this regard, is the wholly fictional Unforgiven, particularly when protagonist Bill Munny observes, “It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. Take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.”

Scripter Jason Hall emphasizes this notion throughout American Sniper, drawing heavily from the 2012 autobiography that Kyle wrote, assisted by Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice. It’s a helluva story on numerous levels, starting with the fact that individuals really can make a massive difference, even within the military chain of command. Kyle couldn’t possibly know how many scores (hundreds?) of American soldiers he saved, during his career as — you have to love this eyebrow-lifting accolade — the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history.

And yet, on the surface, Bradley Cooper’s understated performance as Kyle eschews such celebrity; the man repeatedly insists that he abides by the simple ethos of God, country and family, and always in that order. On top of which, his responsibility as a childhood guardian to younger brother Jeff instilled the importance of looking after one’s own, and — later, on the battlefield — never leaving a man behind.

But Cooper’s work here is deceptive, as is the layering that Eastwood encourages from his star. At first blush, Kyle seems superficial and bland: determined solely to do a good job on behalf of his fellow soldiers, and seemingly unmoved by the consequences of his actions. But that’s a lie, of course, as becomes increasingly obvious during the course of a military career that runs from 1999 through 2009.

Blackhat: A crumpled cyber-joke

Blackhat (2015) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for violence, profanity and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

Rarely has a film worked so hard, on so many levels, to be dumb, dull and mean-spirited.

I cannot imagine why an A-list director such as Michael Mann attached himself to Morgan Davis Foehl’s thoroughly ludicrous, bonehead-stupid script. Nobody with an ounce of savvy could have seen gold in this dross; if green-lighting this sort of puerile junk truly represents corporate thinking, then Universal Pictures is run by monkeys.

On the run and trying to evade pursuit in Hong Kong's colorful market district, our heroes
— from left, Nick (Chris Hemsworth), Lien (Wei Tang) and Jessup (Holt McCallany) —
quietly make their way to the safety of a modest apartment. But can they be truly safe,
in a world where everybody's movements are tracked by cameras and computers?
Foehl has worked as an assistant editor, mostly on television, for roughly a decade. Blackhat is his first script.

It shows.

He makes every rookie mistake, and quite grandiosely: from a relentless barrage of computer-oriented techno-babble, to seriously — seriously — misjudging the impact of his malicious tightening of the dramatic screws. Tuesday evening’s preview audience grew downright hostile as we hit the third act, and with good reason; we weren’t merely betrayed, we were sucker-punched.

Not that Mann doesn’t deserve his share of the blame. Under better circumstances, a thriller dealing with cyber-terrorism should be able to ride the obvious promotional bump delivered by headlines still echoing from the recent Sony hack. Indeed, the serendipity is almost spooky, on par with 1979’s The China Syndrome being released 12 days before the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island.

But we know Blackhat is destined to be a stinker, when Mann opens his film with a protracted, electron’s-point-of-view sfx ride that purportedly shows what it’s like, deep within a server’s countless circuit boards, when a rogue command activates. The whole sequence feels like a what-the-hell cast-off from Tron, and it brings this new film to a grinding halt ... before it even starts.

And, to compound the felony, Mann soon indulges in this tedious exercise a second time.

A bloated thriller that clocks in at a butt-numbing 133 minutes can’t afford that sort of self-indulgence; it denotes a director who isn’t in control of his own movie. Which, in Mann’s case here, quickly becomes obvious.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Selma: The march resonates anew

Selma (2014) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated PG-13, laudably but a bit generously, despite considerable grim violence, dramatic intensity and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.9.15

The images are sickening, their motivation heinous.

Having led a group of peaceful protestors during a voting rights march that concludes in
front of the Selma County courthouse steps, Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo, center
rear) and his followers wait to see what will happen next. It won't be pretty...
Only two decades removed from the post-WWII revelations of how atrociously German-based Jewish citizens had been treated by their own countrymen — up to brutal slaughter — the United States was turning an equally blind eye toward the similarly appalling behavior of Alabama cops who, protected by the imprimatur of authority, assaulted and killed their black neighbors with the gleeful enthusiasm of jack-booted Nazi thugs.

If that isn’t sufficient irony, consider this: Much of America first learned of these contemptible circumstances on March 7, 1965 — remembered, to this day, as our own “Bloody Sunday” — when ABC interrupted an evening movie to show live footage of peaceful black citizens being tear-gassed and beaten by state and local cops in Selma, Ala. The film in question? The television premiere of Judgment at Nuremberg.

The source of all this white-cracker rage?

The audacity of these black citizens, who insisted on exercising their right to vote. The situation was particularly pernicious in Alabama, and notably in Selma, where only 130 of its roughly 15,000 black residents had successfully become voters. Most had been foiled by local registrars who routinely demanded answers to absurdly difficult civics questions.

Director Ava DuVernay opens her riveting new film, Selma, with just such an encounter. A quietly dignified Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) makes what we realize is the most recent of many such trips to the county registrar’s office, only to be thwarted anew by a sneering white clerk who, irritated by her correct answers to his first two questions, responds with an impossible third.

It’s a brilliantly clever prologue by DuVernay and scripter Paul Webb, and not merely for the unsettling calm with which the scene is staged: the immediate implication that this is disenfranchised business as usual. DuVernay also secures calmly understated performances from both actors: the determined but wearily pragmatic Winfrey on one side, the pugnacious Clay Chappell on the other.

It’s a landmark cinematic moment: a scene destined to be memorialized, and oft resurrected, for decades to come.

And it succinctly depicts the fetid racist swamp into which Martin Luther King Jr. waded in early 1965, fresh from receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and having been named “Man of the Year” by Time Magazine, which dubbed him “the American Gandhi.”

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Imitation Game: What price genius?

The Imitation Game (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and rather harshly, for mature content and occasional sexual candor

By Derrick Bang

Mankind has an unfortunate tendency to devour its champions. Always has, likely always will.

We’re also not very tolerant of those who are different, whether in appearance or behavior. During times of crisis, such eccentricities are regarded even more suspiciously.

Despite indifference and outright hostility from some of his Bletchley Park colleagues,
Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) proceeds doggedly with the creation and
construction of a massive "thinking machine" that he hopes will break the German
"Enigma code" that has frustrated Allied efforts for so long.
Norwegian-born director Morten Tyldum’s handling of The Imitation Game employs shaming and ostracization as dramatic plot points: issues every bit as significant as the WWII-era predicament that brings young mathematician Alan Turing to the unusual code-breaking operation at Buckinghamshire’s Bletchley Park.

As scripted by Graham Moore and depicted by star Benedict Cumberbatch, Turing is a social outcast by virtue of his utter obliviousness to decorum and protocol. He affects a level of bland arrogance that infuriates everybody, yet remains utterly bewildered by how he is perceived by others.

This characterization places Turing squarely “on the spectrum,” to acknowledge the phrase du jour ... and I can’t help feeling that this artistic decision may have been propelled more by our current fascination with such characters — think Hugh Laurie’s Dr. Gregory House, or Cumberbatch’s own modern spin on Sherlock Holmes — than by authenticity.

This film’s opening credits are a bit deceptive, implying that Moore concocted this screenplay on his own. Only when we hit the closing credits can sharp-eyed viewers spot, in tiny print, a reference to Moore’s script being adapted from Andrew Hodges’ 1983 biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma. And while Hodges drew upon ample sources to confirm Turing’s impatience with bureaucracy and the grinding sluggishness of the military chain of command, Moore’s decision to re-cast this as full-blown autism is ... well ... historically suspect.

That said, it allows Cumberbatch to inhabit another of his fascinating, eccentricity-laden characters: a fresh performance that never ceases to be both fascinating and entertaining. Tyldum clearly recognizes this, choosing to open his film with Turing’s initial interview in the office of Bletchley Park Commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance). It’s a hilarious, impeccably timed display of rat-a-tat dialogue between an increasingly annoyed Denniston and the calmly indifferent Turing.

Indeed, such unruffled disdain later leads to the film’s funniest line, when one of Turing’s colleagues comments, in the aftermath of a particularly blunt display, “Popular in school, were you?”

Likely not, but that’s hardly the point; Turing’s unlikely presence at Bletchley Park, juxtaposed against the increasingly importance of his work, is what makes this film so engaging.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Wild: An incredible journey

Wild (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for nudity, sexual content, profanity and drug use

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.2.15

In June 1995, at the age of 26 and with her life in what could have been an inescapable downward spiral, Cheryl Strayed impulsively — foolishly, naïvely, absurdly — embarked on a solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail.

A glimpse backward, at a happier time: Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon, right) watches as her
mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern) enjoys a daily ride on the beloved horse that is one of the
few precious things in her life.
The Minneapolis-based liberal arts scholar — magna cum laude, with a double major in English and women’s studies — had zero experience with such activities, but she knew one thing: Her life was in crisis, and she had to do something.

Attempting to regain her soul while trekking through Nature’s wonderland likely seemed a reasonable plan.

The resulting memoir — Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail — was published in the spring of 2012, reaching No. 1 on The New York Times Best Seller list that July. The book was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, and in fact had been optioned by Reese Witherspoon’s production company before copies even hit bookstores.

And so here we are, two years and change later, with director Jean-Marc Vallée’s big-screen adaptation bringing Witherspoon the best reviews of her career: accolades that are heartily deserved.

Vallée will be remembered as the director/editor who just last year guided Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto to Academy Awards in Dallas Buyers Club. Clearly, Vallée has a gift for extracting the best from his actors, and he has worked the same magic here: not merely with Witherspoon, but also — and equally notably — with Laura Dern, utterly luminescent as Cheryl’s wise and loving mother, Bobbi.

And it wouldn’t surprise me if both Witherspoon and Dern galloped home with the same two Oscars.

Vallée also is drawn to fact-based stories involving people in deep spiritual crisis: self-destructive individuals who — whether through anger, anguish or an epiphany — abruptly resolve to turn things around, to make a difference. Two decades passed before scrappy AIDS angel Ron Woodroof’s saga became a film, in Dallas Buyers Club; I’m intrigued by the similar length of time that passed before Strayed felt comfortable turning her chronicle into a book (after which, the film couldn’t have been made faster).

One suspects she needed time to process everything.